Nobody in the NBA has had a more up and down, inconsistent season than Paul George.
Indianapolis re-signed their athletic superstar to a five-year, $90 million contract extension last summer, relieving the one ounce of stress professional athletes have to go through. We all sit back and ponder: “What would it be like to never have a worry for money, and for being able to provide for your family?” Before the NBA’s modern era (beginning in 1979-80), these large paychecks for the league’s brightest stars were never seen, and basketball was always viewed as a hobby and competitive activity for many players.
Now, the sports industry has transformed into a business, an environment reliant on it’s personas, and the star power that draws viewers’ attention.
George squeezed into the category of must-watch athletes when he gave LeBron James a run for his money during the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals, but the polished talent was not there. It’s still not. The 24-year-old is still learning. He’s only beginning the adapting process, the one that requires perfection for those that make the leap from tier two to tier one in terms of the NBA’s most sensational players.
For the record, there’s only six “tier one” players in this league from my account, and that’s Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, and Dwight Howard. Those are the best at what they do, especially in Paul and Howard’s case with playing two crucial positions (point guard, center).
George is resting firmly at the top of tier two, with James Harden and Stephen Curry breathing down his neck. His athleticism, desire to cover the opposing team’s most dangerous perimeter threat, and his versatility are all components of George’s game that have to be in the mix with Durant’s level of play, and James’ success of two straight titles. The strength of George, however (in relation to that of James) isn’t at the level to throw him into the upper-echelon, and his inconsistent shooting touch (compared to the shooting ability of Durant) helps sift through reasons George is still a step behind the leaders.
Inking the new deal last summer was monumental for George, as he was able to remain in a city where he’s appreciated, supported 24/7 through any personal dilemma, and surrounded by some of the most heartwarming fans the league has. Also a factor to keep in mind concerning George’s re-up with Indiana is that he didn’t have to pursue in a live-or-die type of situation in a contract year, such as what we’ve seen from Lance Stephenson.
Stephenson, who will be an unrestricted free agent this upcoming summer — possibly with a title ring — has to do what’s best for him. Whether it’s chasing a high dollar amount that just blows away his current salary ($1,005,000) or sticking in Naptown for any price Larry Bird can offer him, Stephenson has gained his share of fans and supporters this season. His ridiculously energetic play, sense of when to get Indiana’s stale, unappetizing offense rolling, and improved outside shooting have mandated a higher price tag this summer. When it’s not George exploding and nailing seven 3-pointers, Stephenson is the Pacers’ most valuable player, and frequently the only one that can spark a run with the second unit.
As Indiana, along with Georgetown’s John Thompson III marched into Washington D.C. to hopefully steal one game from the Wizards, a 17-point halftime deficit in Game 4 signaled that’s all they would get; one win.
Playing their best second half of the playoffs in the Game 4 comeback win, the Pacers now prepare to finish off the series on Tuesday night at home, advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals. It’s not going to be simple and clear-cut, as Washington’s two best performances came in Games 1 and 2, at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Despite their young backcourt, Washington isn’t rattled, especially their two offensive forces in Bradley Beal and John Wall.
The shooting woes (as shown in the above graph) have hit the Pacers with a haymaker in the last two games, specifically in the first halves. Indiana shot just 12-of-35 (34.3 percent) in the first half of Game 3, which was the epitome of a miserable Friday night watching a basketball game. If you could even call it that. In the first half of Game 4, the Pacers weren’t as horrific from the field, but connecting on just 15-of-37 attempts (40.5 percent) allowed the Wizards to head into the break with a lead they would never let diminish again. Randy Wittman probably couldn’t sleep Sunday night knowing they had the series tied, and couldn’t finish in front of their crazed fans.
Credit Frank Vogel for allowing George to cover Beal for majority of games ever since the disruptive Game 1 loss, where Beal scored 25 points and Indiana appeared lost on defensive rotations and one-on-one covers. Since returning home for Games 3 and 4, Beal has shot just 13-of-33 (39.4 percent) from the floor. His point guard, John Wall, isn’t hiding from the light of blame neither, as you can’t turn the ball over 12 times in two home games. You can talk about “inexperience” all you want. But at the end of the day, I don’t buy into that notion. It’s the game of basketball, and these two youngsters have still played in loud, high-stake settings similar during their days in college, as well as in Chicago (first round). Don’t let it be an excuse that bails them out. It will be Washington’s time, they just ran into a hungrier, more talented defensive team.
George took Game 4 into his own hands, burying Washington possession after possession with 3-pointers (some while getting hammered) and getting to the line 10 times. You could argue Indiana is more confident than the Miami roster as a whole, because they know they’ve been getting great contributions from Hibbert in the past three games, and the Heat wouldn’t have survived Game 4 in Brooklyn without James becoming a one-man wrecking force.
While the perspective on the Pacers shifted dramatically from December to March, it’s beginning to take that correct turn once again. Winning five of their last six games and having a chance to re-challenge Miami for the championship belt of the East has steered them in the right direction. Now, all they’ll need is for a king to stop a king. King George has to dethrone King James, or we’ll never view this Indiana unit as a group that has what it takes.